IQ and the Social Sciences
One of the great modern diseases is our obsession with quantifying the intrinsically unquantifiable. The successes of the modern natural sciences have fostered an unjustified faith (and faith is the right word, since this belief is pure dogma) that a superficial approximation of scientific method may be applied to human life itself — to morality, society, education — with similarly salutary results.
The chief byproduct of this disease and its symptomatic faith may be summarized in two dangerously corruptive and ultimately anti-intellectual words, which have come to dominate the development of late modernity in more ways, and with more harm, than we may ever be able to comprehend: “social science.”
Hiding behind masks upon masks of moral and political biases and presuppositions, which they defensively euphemize as their “axioms” — to sound like real scientists, you see — social scientists produce reams of standardized (generic) survey results that purport to “demonstrate” something about human nature or life, though in fact they only demonstrate exactly what the researchers’ biases have preloaded into the standardized survey. Imagining, or at least claiming, that they are achieving quantifiable facts about humanity, they suppose they are advancing our understanding of the human condition, and therefore, in theory, showing us how to improve that condition.
Social scientists, having grown in confidence and social influence through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to the natural appeal of their “objective results” to the power-mad and paternalistic — who are always looking for convenient rationalizations for tyranny — are largely responsible for the dismantling of true teaching and learning in favor of the compulsory standardization and rank-ordering assembly line that we call “public education” today. (Read my book outlining the reality and history of education’s undoing here. Or you may skip ahead to the chapter directly addressing standardization per se, here.)
They are largely responsible for the spread of Marxist progressivism and its offshoots throughout our institutions of higher learning, reversing the university’s chief function of opening young minds to the pleasures of self-discovery, free thinking, and spiritual development, by reducing post-secondary education to an uneasy marriage of “success-training” (i.e., entrenchment in the presuppositions of one’s immediate surroundings) and radical leftist indoctrination (i.e., the normalization of subversive political beliefs).
They have been the main support beams of the twentieth century’s various genetic engineering fantasies; of the liquidation sale on moral restraint and modesty that has characterized “social progress” over the past century; and of the popularization of cultural relativism and historicism, fostering our mindless descent into “multiculturalism” and globalism, on the implicit grounds that all things that masses of people do must be respected equally, merely because masses of people do them — the objective “fact” of quantifiable behavior supplanting the “value” judgments of philosophy and common sense.
“But wait!” one might object. “Couldn’t we make the same claim about philosophy, or even the natural sciences, if we chose to isolate only the negative outcomes related to those endeavors, and to overlook all the positives?”
To which I reply: What are the “positives” in the case of the social sciences? The examples I cited above are not the chaff of those disciplines, but their primary achievements.
Racialism, culturalism, and every other form of collectivism; social rank-ordering in the service of progressive paternalism; the cult of “expertise,” which belittles human knowledge and obviates self-government in favor of the simplistic delusion that someone with a degree, certificate, or socially-sanctioned title always knows best, and should therefore be granted decision-making authority over our lives and communities; the relativization of life goals and purposes at the expense of the pursuit of wisdom and painful self-correction; the normalization of moral weakness or, to put it differently, the re-identification of human desires as mere “proclivities” or “tendencies” — whether well-adjusted or ill-adjusted — rather than as the volatile fuel of education and spiritual growth that those dark forces were formerly understood to be; the implicit aggrandizement of the popular, the new, and the ascendant, at the expense of the beautiful, the rare, and the permanent in art, thinking, and social hierarchy; and in general the fostering and buttressing of neo-Marxist language and categorizations in all aspects of life and learning.
These outcomes are the social sciences in a nutshell. Which of them are ultimately salubrious? Thus, whereas philosophy and natural science may easily be defended on the strength of their respective defining achievements, in spite of all the great abuses and wrong turns to which individual practitioners have been susceptible over the centuries, with the social sciences the situation is exactly the reverse: One may defend individual practitioners who display nobler intentions and greater independence of thought than their disciplines demand; the disciplines themselves, on the other hand, are essentially indefensible.
Take the example of University of Toronto professor of psychology Jordan Peterson, who has made quite a name for himself, deservedly, for his principled stand against the encroachments of the politically correct thought police into modern society, the modern university, and modern language. Peterson is obviously a highly intelligent man, and teaches with plenty of sound advice and inspirational words for those seeking an escape hatch from today’s malaise of irresponsibility and purposeless existence. And yet, when he lectures within the context of his academic discipline, all the strands of his good advice and (apparently newfound) political and philosophical inquisitiveness become knotted up with his professional biases and presuppositions, which run counter to the principles he espouses on certain causes of the moment in ways that, above all else, make him sound far less original and thoughtful than those recent statements of principle suggest.
(I take this conflict as evidence of an intelligent man who lived too long within the comfortably narrow confines of his profession’s self-justifications — the “expert trap,” if you will — and is just now transitioning into a deeper examination of those underlying biases he had previously treated as “axiomatic.” This is a hard transition to follow through to genuine spiritual freedom even for a young person without such deeply entrenched adult rationalizations; for a successful professor at a major university, the challenge is monumental. I hope he makes it through, because he has an incisive mind and is a very effective lecturer.)
I have been listening to one of his classroom lecture series on personality, which he has been generous enough to record and upload to his website via YouTube. As “personality” is one of those modern social science categories laden with dubious assumptions, I always approach it with my “Social Science BS Detector” on at full power. Nevertheless, if one is looking for an excellent overview of twentieth century psychology and the research that supports it — both scientific and pseudoscientific — you could do a lot worse than Peterson’s course. (Trust me; I did a lot worse with the personality course I took during my own undergraduate days, so I know whereof I speak.)
In the latest lecture I heard, he discussed the role of intelligence in life outcomes. Inevitably, he entered into a discussion of IQ and IQ testing, a topic that always leaves me wondering whether we’ve truly arrived at Huxley’s dystopia at last — a question Huxley himself was asking, of course, when he wrote of this topic in Brave New World. At one point, defending his own discipline and its academic sisters against the skepticism of those who doubt the validity or ultimate usefulness of such precise quantifications of intellectual ability, Peterson, apparently without a hint of irony or self-awareness, offers this:
If IQ doesn’t pass the test of reality for a psychological measure, then no other psychological measures pass the test, because they’re validated exactly the same way IQ is, and they don’t work as well. So you can say, “Well, no, that’s not real,” but then you have to throw out — you probably have to throw out the social sciences completely, insofar as they are actually sciences, because the same statistics are used to generate their findings. [Emphasis added.]
No argument here.
(If you wish to see Peterson’s full explanation of IQ and his argument against those who question its “reality,” here is a link to that video. The section from which I pulled the quotation above begins around the 30-minute mark.)
The extent to which Peterson fails even to grasp the question being raised against his IQ research here may be seen in his further argument that IQ is real “because we can measure it.” Obviously it is “real” in the sense that something has been stipulated to exist, as a matter of linguistic convenience, that is inherently quantifiable. That this gives the resulting quantifications meaningful predictive power, or proves that the stipulated object being quantified represents reality itself, is far from obvious.
If, having observed a lot of office doors in various offices throughout my life, I decide to quantify all the doors being made in a door factory with a view to predicting which ones will end up as the doors of offices, and I use the features I’ve noticed during my previous observations of actual office doors to define the high end of probability on the scale, then of course the resulting rank-ordering of doors is going to show an incredibly accurate “predictive power” regarding which of the doors in the factory are going to end up as office doors. My reasoning is equivalent to saying, “Office doors have a higher probability of ending up as office doors than do house doors, kitchen cabinet doors, and cuckoo clock doors.” Yes, there is quantification here, but is this science? Do the results of this quantification constitute new knowledge?
That they do not is suggested by the predictability and uniformity with which social scientists insist on dragging such uninformative results into realms where they have no legitimate place, namely into issues of relative worth. Having determined, to return to my analogy, that doors which have the features of office doors are more likely to be used as office doors than those which do not, I have no license to shift into the evaluative claim that these doors are superior to all other doors — in effect that office doors are the true doors, and all others mere pale imitations.
Let me be clear: Perhaps office doors really are the “best” doors; but there is nothing in my quantification method, from its inception to its measured results, to justify any such claim. We would need a theoretical argument, which is inherently unquantifiable in all the ways the highest thinking in any arena must be unquantifiable, in order to support that claim.
The danger of this unjustified slide from the (empty) quantification of a stipulatively-defined IQ into the moral and even metaphysical realm of the Good and the True is that the combination of moral language with pseudo-scientifically quantifiable results is the very lifeblood of progressive totalitarianism and its administrative behemoth. This takes us straight into the dark alchemy of progressive and/or neo-Marxist thought — the world of John Dewey, Alfred Adler, and the Frankfurt School, where a socialist state is the necessary means to realigning or perfecting a loose and disheveled humanity into a rational social collective, in accordance with the expert findings of science and pragmatism. More broadly, it leads into utilitarian collectivism of all sorts, including the allegedly libertarian variety that one may find scattered around economics departments. (For my analysis of the specific follies of that social science, see my recent essay, “The Profit Motive, Greed, and Tyranny.”)
(As both a symptom of Peterson’s embeddedness within the social science paradigm, and a sign of hope for his eventual reclamation by the world of honest thought, I note that he frequently mentions the continued prevalence of neo-Marxist thinking among current social scientists with a tone of authentic alarm and dismay. “I just don’t understand it,” he declares to the heavens. I believe him. He apparently entered his own field with so rare a degree of naïve enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity that, though a highly accomplished social scientist and well into his fifties, he has yet to experience the revelation that should be obvious to anyone who has taken a few undergraduate psychology, sociology, or political science courses: the social sciences exist primarily, essentially, as the academic greenhouse of progressive social manipulation.)
To make my point in a more amusing form, I give you Donald Trump, who repeatedly tells us how smart he is — and Jordan Peterson agrees. Indeed he must agree, for Trump, independently of any real IQ score, matches the IQ cult’s definition of a genius — that is to say, he is practically successful in the socially-sanctioned manner of the kind of person that was/is used to form the presuppositions underlying all standard IQ testing. Big schools, big financial success, social prominence of the highest order — this is the standard used to create IQ tests, such that, working backwards (as social scientists are always willing to do, in defiance of their claims of scientific objectivity), it stands to reason that Trump must be brilliant. And so, being more honest than most of his left-leaning social scientist brethren, Peterson declares that he is brilliant.
There are more loose assertions, ungrounded assumptions, and overwhelmingly dubious implied standards in the above clip than you can shake a stick at. When “he can obviously read a crowd” is used as a measure of intelligence — by a prominent social scientist specializing in the measurement of intelligence — we are clearly no longer operating within any rational conception of “intellect,” but merely adhering to the Deweyan pragmatist’s dictum, “the truth is what works.”
“Works” for what? This is where we would have to get into the question of evaluative hypotheses, moral theory, and dialectical reasoning about nothing less than the nature of man. Hence, this is where we must leave the social scientists’ quantification toys, social rankings, and knee-jerk progressive certainties behind, and enter into genuine rational investigation of human experience and its meaning — you know, the hard part, which might not get you a publication record and career advancement, but, if you kill yourself on it for decades and pretty much drop all other interests and concerns, just might finally give you a distant, tantalizing glimpse of the wisdom you will never quite achieve.